Opening doors in natural science

Donavan Jackson views his doctoral studies as a way to provide opportunities for Native American students and others from underrepresented backgrounds in academia.

As Donavan Jackson pursues his doctorate in biology at UW, he’s still thinking about the high school students he used to teach science to in New Mexico.

Jackson taught at a Bureau of Indian Education school on the Navajo reservation near Gallup, New Mexico. Growing up Diné (Navajo), Jackson felt a special connection with his students. He understood them, their inside jokes, their challenges, the feelings of balancing their culture alongside the push to get an education.

He keeps those students in his thoughts because he doesn’t want to pursue his doctorate just for himself. Instead, he wants it to be a way to provide more opportunities for Native American students or those from underrepresented backgrounds in academia.

“The ultimate goal for me is to open doors and provide access for other individuals that otherwise might have a hard time knowing that this is something they could be passionate about,” Jackson said. “You have this dream that you helped some students and then they help some more, and it’s just something that builds.”

Jackson conducting field work as part of his master’s research in March 2016. He was trying to locate an isolated population of meadow voles in the Cibola National Forest of New Mexico.

Jackson has found his career trajectory shaped by people around him sharing opportunities. At the University of New Mexico where he was an undergraduate, a professor had a meeting with Jackson, where they talked about where he was from and bonded over their shared connection to the Navajo community, through the professor’s adopted sister.

At the end of the meeting, the professor invited Jackson on a trip to do field work in Alaska. Jackson agreed, and spent that summer in the southeastern part of the state, island-hopping around the Alexander Archipelago while studying and collecting small rodents like shrews to preserve for museums. During that trip, Jackson realized this type of research was something he wanted to do long term.

Just as that summer trip was influential to Jackson as an undergraduate, he’s already working to share similar opportunities with fellow Native American students as a doctoral student. This summer, he plans to conduct fieldwork on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, and he hopes to invite students from a local tribal college to collaborate with him on the research.

It will also be a return to the place where his love and curiosity for the natural sciences first started. Growing up, he’d spend summers at his grandparents’ houses on the reservation. Because the towns were small, Jackson said there wasn’t as much to do, so he and his brothers and other kids nearby would run around outside, looking for lizards, snakes and other animals.

Jackson on a 2015 trip to the Arctic Circle to trap lemmings.

The summer fieldwork Jackson will be working on will provide vital specimens for his research that focuses on the phylogeography of chipmunks in the Southwest. This type of research is about studying how a species moves through a landscape over time and evolves. Their DNA can tell stories, such as how a geographic formation like mountains can lead to distinct lineages in a species over time, or how the removal of a barrier, like a melting glacier, could bring that species back together.

“Phylogeography to me is just like a story: you get to look at their DNA and see what’s happened to a species over time,” Jackson said.

There hasn’t been a lot of this type of research done before on the reservation, Jackson said, which makes the work important not just for his own use, but for other researchers in the future who want to learn from and use his research in their own projects.

At UW, Jackson is also excited about the opportunity to work with the Burke Museum, where outreach with the community is incorporated into the design of the building. Big moving glass windows allow museum staff to engage with visitors about specimens they’re working with. In the long term, he wants to be a professor and develop outreach programs to draw more Black, Indigenous, and students of color to the natural sciences.

Jackson prepares a golden mantled ground squirrel skin in The Burke after the museum was able to safely reopen during 2020 (Photo courtesy Jeff Bradley, The Burke Museum).

He’s also interested in engaging with local Indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest throughout his doctoral studies, which was part of the reason he chose to attend UW.

Jackson is also a GO-MAP fellow, which means that he doesn’t have to be a teaching assistant in his first year of graduate school, and can instead focus on what he wants to research. Jackson said he appreciates the opportunities to meet other graduate students outside of the biology department through GO-MAP’s virtual outreach events, where he can listen and learn from the experiences of fellow BIPOC students in academia.

The feeling of walking into a room and looking around to see if there are any other people who look like him is one Jackson said he shares with other students. He added that many of his fellow Native American students, who leave the reservation for the first time when they go to college, experience homesickness and feelings of not belonging, especially coupled with the weight of historical marginalization of Indigenous peoples in the United States.

“My hope is that I get to the point where I can show other Native American students that someone who grew up in a similar situation that they did, that they also can succeed and the opportunities are there to help them succeed, and that people want them to succeed,” Jackson said.

Swipe through to see images from Jackson’s research around the globe.

 

By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Published March 10, 2021